On Identity


Some quick, random thoughts about the nature of identity…

One of the things that marks our transition into adulthood is that our identities become more opaque to outside observers.

When we’re children, we construct our identities - both internal and external - from “found” parts of our environment: Pop culture, the teachings of our elders, etc. There’s really no other way we can construct ourselves at this point, since we don’t actually start off with any knowledge about ourselves. Unfortunately, the problem with constructing our identities from “found” experiences is that they are transparent, in that anyone who understands what we are drawing on can effectively reverse-engineer our identity.

Eventually, however, we accumulate enough “self” to begin making unexpected connections between different facets of the identities we’ve constructed. Our internal environment has become rich enough that we can begin generating (relatively) unique experiences and insights into ourselves. As we incorporate these new, internal, experiences into our selves, our identities become more opaque, since it is now impossible (or at least much more difficult) for an outside observer to understand why we present ourselves the way we do.

Some random thoughts:

  1. The creation of an opaque identity is thus intimately tied to the process of creativity. In effect, the emergence of non-derivative creativity is what marks childhood’s end.

  2. This is probably one (among many) reasons that adolescence is so frustrating for parents. Up until know you understood your child, because you knew all of the experiences from which they fashioned their selves, but now they’re beginning to self-generate parts of their identity. Sometimes you still understand where they’re coming from, but other times you run into seemingly inexplicable behavior because you’ve encountered a new part of their identity that they generated internally. It’s like the person you knew and loved is being gradually replaced before your eyes… Because, well, they are.

  3. Someone who never figures out how to be creative never truly becomes an adult. They probably fit into the adult world just fine, but their actions and thoughts remain transparent to those around them. This makes them easy to understand - and manipulate.

  4. It’s important to understand here that an individual who’s creative in this sense may not actually express that creativity as part of their external identity. Not all artists are known, even to themselves.

  5. Adulthood is a matter of degrees, not a bright line. Some people are more or less creative, and thus more or less opaque to outside observers.

  6. Creativity is the last bulwark against surveillance. Total surveillance allows more and more of a person’s identity - and thus behavior - to be predicted by those in power. The more creative an individual is, the less predictable they will be, even when intensely surveilled. This is probably one reason why surveillance states and totalitarian states tend to be extremely hostile towards artists.

  7. This also means that the surveillance state is inherently infantilizing, as it allows larger amount of an individual’s identity to be reverse-engineered by outside observers, and thus effectively “raises the bar” on adulthood.

  8. A culture that emphasizes the creation of identity via external acquisition (i.e., a consumer culture) is also inherently infantilizing, but for a different reason. In this case, individuals are encouraged to continue to expand and evolve their identities by incorporating only external parts of their environment, rather than by generating new internal experiences. This has the effect of also making their identities more transparent (especially to the marketers who are selling the experiences), since what those identities are built on is known by all. Where surveillance infantilizes by essentially raising the bar on creativity, consumer culture infantilizes by actually reducing the overall level of creativity within a population.

Mind you, Lieutenant Commander Data told me this in a dream while chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, so I’m not sure how seriously I (or you) should actually take any of it.